Hamil­ton on pole as Vet­tel starts from back of grid

Mercedes man ben­e­fits from Fer­rari en­gine woes Pit crew’s ex­per­tise saves day after frus­trat­ing Fri­day

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport | Racing - By Tom Cary in Sepang

Lewis Hamil­ton is driv­ing out of his skin at the mo­ment, but it has to be said Mercedes’ megas­tar is also en­joy­ing a fair dol­lop of good for­tune.

After he prof­ited from an open­inglap col­li­sion be­tween the two Fer­raris in Sin­ga­pore two week­ends ago, his ti­tle hopes re­ceived an­other sig­nif­i­cant boost yes­ter­day as en­gine trou­ble meant cham­pi­onship ri­val Se­bas­tian Vet­tel failed to reg­is­ter a time in qual­i­fy­ing for to­day’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

The Ger­man – who had looked to have eas­ily the best pace in free prac­tice – will now start from the back of the grid, while Hamil­ton, who leads the cham­pi­onship by 28 points after three suc­ces­sive wins, will start from pole, the 70th of his ca­reer. What had promised to be a breath­less ti­tle run-in is in dan­ger of blow­ing it­self out early.

Nothing is guar­an­teed to­day, of course, par­tic­u­larly at Sepang where the weather can wreak havoc – the Michael Fishes out here reckon there is a very strong pos­si­bil­ity of show­ers, and when it rains in Malaysia, it re­ally rains – but it feels as if the cards are be­gin­ning to fall in Hamil­ton’s favour.

Vet­tel’s mis­for­tune yes­ter­day was com­pounded by the fact that Hamil­ton sud­denly dis­cov­ered a bit of pace him­self. Mercedes chief Toto Wolff had de­scribed Fri­day as the “worst” he could re­call in the team’s en­tire his­tory, with the car over a sec­ond off the pace of the Fer­raris. “It is un­bal­anced and slid­ing all over the place,” he had said. “The tyres are over­heat­ing and there is a grem­lin in the car.”

If there’s some­thing strange un­der­neath your hood who are you going to call? Hamil­ton was left thank­ing the grem­lin-busters in his pit crew as he flew around the Sepang cir­cuit in Q3, ex­tract­ing the ab­so­lute max­i­mum from his ma­chine and even­tu­ally match­ing Michael Schu­macher’s achieve­ment in set­ting five pole laps here.

“I have no idea how the guys turned it around, but I am re­ally grate­ful,” said Hamil­ton, who had re­verted to an old set-up with team-mate Valt­teri Bot­tas us­ing the new aero­dy­namic up­grade Mercedes sus­pected caused prob­lems on Fri­day. “It’s a sur­prise to be up here with these guys. But there’s a long, long run down to turn one, so we’ll see what hap­pens to­mor­row.”

Vet­tel was left ru­ing his luck. His en­gine first failed in final prac­tice an hour or two be­fore qual­i­fy­ing. And al­though it was changed for qual­i­fy­ing, it did not run prop­erly. The Ger­man went out briefly at the start of Q1 but was quickly back in the pits, sit­ting for­lornly in his car as his me­chan­ics beavered away around him.

Vet­tel has shown him­self ca­pa­ble of mov­ing through the pack be­fore. He started last at Abu Dhabi in 2012 and went on to fin­ish third in a race from which Hamil­ton re­tired. And there is still a good chance for him to do some­thing to­day, par­tic­u­larly if it rains. But it will re­quire some­thing spe­cial.

He claimed he was “still fairly re­laxed”, given the over­tak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties at Sepang, a track which is host­ing its last ever F1 race.

“I think we would have gone all the way to­day, but now we start last,” he said. “We save some tyres and who knows what will hap­pen to­mor­row if we have rain or a safety car? The race is not to­day, and it would be worse if this had hap­pened to­mor­row.

“The car is quick. I am still fairly re­laxed. Over­tak­ing here is straight­for­ward, and when you have a quick car, you pro­duce big drives.”

The re­al­ity, though, is that Hamil­ton holds the whip hand. He can af­ford to play it safe, with podi­ums prob­a­bly enough for him from here on in. Not that he will see it that way. He will want to win, and his chances of do­ing so in­creased after a lock-up from Fer­rari’s Kimi Raikko­nen into the final cor­ner yes­ter­day which ap­peared to gift the Bri­ton pole by four-hun­dredths.

The sec­ond row, mean­while, will fea­ture the Red Bulls of Max Ver­stap­pen and Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, with both Ver­stap­pen – cel­e­brat­ing his 20th birth­day yes­ter­day – and Raikko­nen jok­ing that they needed to keep it clean to­day after what hap­pened in Sin­ga­pore when they were caught up in that three-way col­li­sion with Vet­tel.

“I don’t want to be sand­wiched – that’s the only thing,” Ver­stap­pen said when asked what his tac­tics at the start might be. “I don’t want to be hit,” coun­tered Raikko­nen. Touche.

Hamil­ton will want to play it safe, too. Hav­ing trailed Vet­tel in the ti­tle race over the sum­mer break, ev­ery­thing ap­pears to be fall­ing into place for him, al­though he cau­tioned he was still un­sure whether the car re­ally had turned the cor­ner this week­end.

“We had such a dif­fi­cult day yes­ter­day,” he con­cluded. “I didn’t sleep very well last night be­cause we just didn’t know if we’d fix the is­sue or not.

“As I said, it’s a sur­prise to be up here. It’s al­ways a spe­cial thing to be able to ex­tract a lit­tle bit more out of the car than it’s will­ing to give. That’s what I’ve al­ways en­joyed , my dad would say. My first go-kart was fifth­hand or some­thing like that, and he’d say it was like a four-poster bed.

“Not that my car was a four-poster bed to­day, but I was hop­ing I could ex­tract a lit­tle bit more out of it.”

Mak­ing a point: Bri­tain’s Lewis Hamil­ton cel­e­brates se­cur­ing pole po­si­tion after final qual­i­fy­ing for to­day’s Malaysian Grand Prix

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